Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hawaiin quilting: An interesting story

The Pillows to Patch Quilt Collection: The Hawaiian Way

I don't know if you have ever looked closely at the origins and significance of quilting in Hawaii, but it took an interesting detour from the route that was taken here in America, and one with which we are accustomed. Most cultures can take a guess or make an estimate as to when a particular practice first came into being, and where it may have begun. Attempting to figure out who the first users are is almost impossible.

With Hawaiian quilting, however, this is not the case. In fact, quilting in Hawaii can be traced back to a specific year, place, event, and persons. It is my understanding that in 1820, the wives of two prominent Hawaiians were invited aboard a ship named the Thaddeus. Once aboard, they were taught the traditional method of piecing quilts by missionary wives. Over the next few years, Hawaiian women wrestled with this strange concept of cutting up perfectly good fabric, only to sew it back together again. To a culture which had no use for warm bedcoverings, and was highly resourceful, this was considered to be wasteful indeed.

So the women of Hawaii took this art form and placed their own unique spin on it. First of all, they appear to have abandoned the practice of piecework. Instead, they used one piece of fabric for an applique and cut their design of choice from this fabric. It is in the cutting that Hawaiians made their quilts distinct from the rest of the world. Using a cutting method not unlike the one you may have used as a child to cut snowflakes, they folded the fabric into fourths or eighths and created their applique pattern. They then allegedly handed the remnant pieces back to the misisonaries! Isn't that funny?

Hawaiian quilts are highly symbolic, as they are not utilitarian. The quilts of Hawaiian women were a reflection of their beautiful surroundings, their religious beliefs, and their homeland. They memorialized and celebrated loved ones who had passed on, as well as yet to be born babies. In a land where an elaborate hand appliqued design could take several months to complete, quilts were considered to be very special, and were regarded as heirlooms. Since there was no need to ward off the cold, it did not matter how long a quilting project took to complete.

Who knew that quilts in different regions of the world could have such different meanings and evolve so differently? Because quilts have their beginnings in necessity here in our American culture, it may be difficult for us to understand, at least initially, how quilts could become so different in other places in the world. Today, it is perfectly normal to see quilts here in the United States that were created specifically as art and not as bedcoverings, but in the early 19th century, this could not have been anticipated.

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